“You can’t make this sh– up.” According to Fire and Fury, that was Sean Spicer’s “daily, if not hourly, mantra” during his ill-starred and much-mocked tenure as White House press secretary last year. It could also have served as the title of journalist Michael Wolff’s controversy-inspiring book, which details the history of the Trump administration’s first seven-or-so months.
If you’ve passed a television lately, there’s a fair chance you’re aware of the most newsworthy tidbits. These include media baron Rupert Murdoch allegedly deeming Donald J. Trump to be a “f—ing idiot” after a phone conversation with the then president-elect to former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon describing the decision by Donald Trump Jr. (who Bannon apparently refers to as “Fredo”) to meet with a group of Russians in June 2016 as “treasonous.” Wolff also reiterates the rumor that our president is not the world’s biggest reader. “Trump… didn’t really even skim,” the author writes about the way the commander-in-chief does—or does not—process information. “If it was print, it might not exist.”
Trump knows this particular example of the print medium exists. After the book’s revelations became public knowledge earlier this week, the president issued a statement saying Bannon had “lost his mind” and later tweeted, “I authorized Zero access to White House (actually turned him down many times) for author of phony book! I never spoke to him for book. Full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist. Look at this guy’s past and watch what happens to him and Sloppy Steve!” (“Sloppy Steve” is Trump’s latest nickname for Bannon.) Away from Twitter, Trump’s lawyer Charles Harder sent Wolff and his publisher, Henry Holt and Co., a letter demanding they cease and desist from any further publication because of “numerous false and/or baseless statements that you have made about Mr. Trump.” Holt responded by moving up the release of the book from Jan. 9 to today, Jan. 5. “We see Fire and Fury as an extraordinary contribution to our national discourse, and are proceeding with the publication of the book,” Holt said in a statement.
The publisher has reasons to be bullish. Wolff enjoyed what he describes in his author’s note as “something like a semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing” following Trump’s inauguration and subsequently conducted over 200 interviews in the course of researching the book. Still, Fire and Fury does not seem to be error free. Wolff’s claim that Trump asked “Who’s that?” when it was suggested he make John Boehner his chief of staff, for example, appears suspect given the pair actually played golf together as far back as 2013. (In an interview Friday, Wolff said of his book’s credibility, “I work like every journalist works, so I have recordings, I have notes. I am certainly, in absolutely every way, comfortable with everything I’ve reported in this book.”)
But Wolff’s lasting achievement here is not his headline-grabbing revelations but the skillful, enthralling, and utterly terrifying way he depicts the unqualified, unprepared, and downright unusual characters to be found wandering the halls of the White House in the first half of 2017 as well as their near bloodsport-level conflicts. Spicer was right. You really can’t make this sh– up, though, long before the end, many readers will wish Fire and Fury could be filed under “Fiction.” B+